Sunday, February 22, 2009

Disobedience: A Thought Experiment

Saturday I attended an event connected with U of U's weeklong Strategies for Social Change Conference. It was a four-hour nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience training. Talk about interesting! I learned a ton, and I met some really great people. During the training we were organized in hypothetical affinity groups in which we practiced much of the things we learned including safety, legal issues, consensus, planning, etc. Our affinity group really bonded and we ended up sharing contact information and making a pact to keep in touch. While everyone else was leaving, we were still having a big group hug. It was hard to get break us up when it was time to go!

I attended this thing because my Psychology of Good and Evil (PSY 3850) professor passed the flyers around the classroom (She and another campus friend attended). Since Mike had the kids this weekend I thought, oh hell why not? It's certainly an intriguing facet of peace and justice, and since I'm a Peace and Justice Studies minor perhaps I ought to know more about it. I was really excited about what I learned and I look forward to putting this new knowledge and skillset to practice. I have no plans to do anything risky (i.e. dangerous or illegal and getting arrested and "going limp," but I think that along with writing my senator and house representative, demonstrations done properly are a right, a privelege, and perhaps even a responsiblity at times in any truly democratic society. Of course I've already been criticized and villianized by those I've shared my excitement with. It was suggested behind my back that wanting to make the world a better place is a nice idea, but that peace and justice are best served when people like me just shut up and obey the law of the land. Hmmm...

I'm thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn't just shut up. He took every opportunity he could to speak up loud and clear. He taught his followers to both love and disobey their enemies. He led a nonviolent movement that was anything but passive. I'm thinking of Rosa Parks.  She wasn't just some poor old lady who finally had enough and cracked down the middle. She played the key role in a carefully planned civil disobedience action, collaborating with civil rights leaders, including King.

King's mentor, Ghandi, led thousands of peasants in a march to the sea as an act of civil disobedience. They broke the law by gathering salt which was an abundant and convenient natural resource for which the British government controlled all sales and exacted an exorbitant tax, expoliting the poorest of Indians. Gandhi spent a year in prison for this action, but it marked the beginning of the end of British colonization in India.

Then there's South Africa. While Nelson Mandela is certainly a heroic figure, his committment to nonviolence, which he studied under Gandhi, failed. But there were many South African's who were stoic in their committment to nonviolence and civil disobedience. These included attorneys, both black and white, who set up secret law offices in the city limits where blacks were not permitted by law to practice so they might work near the court houses in which they provided legal defense for anti-apartheid figures, including Mandella. Bram Fischer was one such attorney, a white Afrikaner who led a life of privelege but gave up everything including his own freedom and eventually his life to fight the unjust legal system that perpetuated apartheid.

I'm just thinking that were it not for nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, we'd still have a segregated U.S., African apartheid, and a colonized India. Were King, Parks, Gandhi, and Fischer more committed to obedience than to human life and dignity, we wouldn't have made the amazing strides toward a more just world that we've seen in the last century. In fact, there is a vast body of literature which indicates that cultures with a strong focus on obedience and authority are prime candidates for perpetuating genocide. In reverse, in all cultures where genocide has taken place, the focus on obedience and authority were key aspects of the continuum of destruction. That's something to think about.

Oh I'm not suggesting a houseful of children without rules (God forbid!), or complete social/political anarchy in a literal context, but rather the questioning of unjust laws (Missouri repealed the legal extermination order on Mormons only a few short years ago). We might do well to consider under what circumstances we might be compelled to perform an act of civil disobedience--a thought experiment, if you will.


Dione said...

I agree. We should all be able to stand up for our beliefs and be respectful of others beliefs and it is possible to do so in a non-violent and peaceful manner.

Cam said...

Thanks, Dione. I guess that's what tends to get lost in the us/them binary structure of society--supporting each other's right to pursuit of happiness when it means one thing to one person and another thing to another person. That, of course, is what the Constitution and Bill of Rights are all about, what our country was founded on, and quite possibly our most precious and fragile possession as United States Citizens. It's like the ACLU's mantra: We accept individual cases, but our real client is the constitution. It's nice to know there are others out there who "get it." Thanks for expressing your support.